Monday, September 17, 2012

The Reluctant Fundamentalist Review

Sometimes this is the problem with TIFF: you navigate so many movies in so little time that you don't have the luxury of getting "in the right mood" for each film. I saw The Reluctant Fundamentalist after English Vinglish and before Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2. And its subtlety was maybe too much for me. I came out of it disappointed that it lacked the punch I was expecting. Perhaps it really did lack teeth (and reading excerpts from the book now, I am tempted to say that it did), or perhaps I failed to dial in on the right frequency. Or maybe I was too distracted by my blinding crush on Riz Ahmed (seriously! those EYES!!) to take note of other aspects of the film. Anything's possible.

Gawd!!! Ahem... I rest my case!
This is the story of a Pakistani/Punjabi young man, Changez, who goes to the US to study and work. After graduation he gets hired into a valuation firm where he quickly rises up the ranks through his gift for thinking outside the box and through his ruthless approach to optimizing profit for companies, oftentimes at the expense of their workers. He's a confident, even cocky young man who wants... everything. Then of course 9/11 hits. And between episodes of racial profiling and pressure from his family (and from other people he meets) to choose a side, he ends up moving back to Pakistan where he becomes a teacher at the University of Lahore. But his life is far from peaceful even here as he continues to be under suspicion of terrorist ties, so when an American professor gets kidnapped in Lahore, his allegiances have to be tested once again.

I won't spend too much time on the present-day part of the story because as gorgeous as the opening scene is - the music from a qawwali concert attended by the Khan family (Om Puri and Shabana Azmi play Changez's parents) playing over images of the American professor getting roughed up and taken away in a van - it's a pretty bland ride from here. The dialogues between Changez Khan and his interviewer Bobby (Liev Schreiber) sound like every other Hollywood movie script, so while the action keeps you engaged, there's not much to be learned from this.

The real story is told in flashbacks by a bearded Changez and it takes us through his love affair with New York and the American Dream, and then through his disenchantment with the land of the free in the paranoid post-9/11 world. The first part of the story is extremely well told: in several short but highly effective scenes we learn about the growing distance between Changez and the culture of his parents, we get to know him as a caustic, sometimes arrogant but always charming young man, we see him winning over his colleagues and superiors, and we root for his budding romance with Erica (a brunette Kate Hudson who should henceforth forget that any colour other than blonde even exists).

And through all this, while we're waiting for the other shoe to drop, we're perfectly in sync with this complex character. We laugh at Changez's self-deprecating dry humour even though we know it will turn sour later on. We rejoice with him when he gets promoted even though we know he'll only fall harder. We cheer for him when he tells Erica "All these pictures of me? Come on, you must have a little crush on me." even though we know that relationship can't end well. But then 9/11 happens. And this strong character starts closing up and we lose that connection we thought we had with him.

This was, for me, the biggest flaw of the film. There's an episode where Changez talks about how he felt as he was watching the planes hit the towers on 9/11 and he says (quoting from memory) "Before I got to think about the loss of human lives and about what this meant, for a few brief moments I was in awe... at the audacity of this act. At the brilliance of it." It's a shocking statement, and it holds a promise of a film that will pull no punches. But unfortunately, this is the only moment of its kind. The rest of his inner struggle seems to happen behind closed doors and we never get more insight into his changes of heart. Yes, we witness him being a victim of racial profiling, yes, we see him question his line of work in front of a situation that is too close to home for comfort and yes, we see how his skin colour becomes visible to those close to him, but I for one was in the dark about how this strong, determined, ambitious man ended up doing a complete u-turn. Maybe I wouldn't need an explanation if I was an NRI myself, and maybe this movie is made for NRIs, but as someone who wasn't even on the continent when 9/11 happened, I couldn't relate to him without some guidance and there was none.

But that said, maybe it was just me. Maybe others will watch and totally get it.

And I do highly recommend watching it, if not for Riz Ahmed (in case you missed all my gushing so far, he's fabulous!), then for Mira Nair's flawless direction (what else is new?) and for the excellent music. Given that this soundtrack has been impossible to find, I wasn't even aware that I would be treated to two Atif Aslam songs, so imagine my giddiness when all of a sudden I recognized his voice. Not only that, but one of the songs is a collaboration with Peter Gabriel, who wrote the music for the Urdu poem sung by Atif. I wish I could find even a snippet of it on youtube, I know it would sell the movie single-handedly.

Speaking of Pakistani artists, another little moment of unexpected joy was provided by Mira's nod to a film I absolutely loved last year: Shoaib Mansoor's Bol. In one of the scenes setting up the stage in Lahore, a couple (can't remember if it was Shabana and Om or just a random couple) comes out from a screening of Bol and comments on the virtues of the film. You can't imagine how that made my day!

Last but not least, for a film about racial tensions post 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist also packs a surprising amount of humour, and some of the extra-dry one-liners had the entire audience (and this screened to a full house at TIFF) in stitches. A special mention here to Nelsan Ellis who gets some of the most hilarious wisecracks as an American of (I assume) Jamaican origins. 

So with that in mind, I take your leave now to go and hunt down the book which I am hoping will give me more of those one-liners along with a better insight into the fascinating Changez Khan. I may need to keep a picture of Riz Ahmed open while reading it though...


Mukundh B said...

More importantly how was Gangs?

Dolce and Namak said...

Gangs was awesome, but like you, I ended up liking the first one better than the second. Which is weird because the second one had more of a plot than the first. But still, overall loved it! :)

Mukundh B said...

Ya, but the second part didn't have Sardar Khan. And, the first part was high on detail. The second part was high on plot. Many a times the first part digressed from the main plot but I didn't mind.

Dolce and Namak said...

Ya, but that shouldn't have mattered for me. I love Nawaz just as much as I love Bajpai, but for some reason Sardar Khan was 10 classes above Faizal, as a character. I hate to admit it, it probably does have something to do with Manoj Bajpayee being the better actor. Also, I liked the music better in the first one. And I think the novelty of the humour had worn off in the second one, because it was funny, just not AS funny.

Still, I'm really glad it came to TIFF because it won't have a North American release so this was my only chance to see it in a theatre. :)

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